Out of the kitchen, and into outer space.
That’s not the way I thought my life would go, but there I was.
Leaning back on the plush leather seat, I stared out the small observation window and felt odd that I couldn’t even feel the sub dermal translation chip they’d implanted in me shortly before taking off. Outside, the darkness of space seemed to swallow my shuttle, billions of stars peppering that dark canvas as far as the eye could see. It was terrifying, but it was also beautiful. For the hundredth time that night, I pinched myself in the arm.
Yup, this is happening, no doubt about it, I thought, still struggling to accept the fact that I wasn’t hallucinating or having a particularly vivid dream. No matter how strange it all seemed, it was real.
“How are you feeling?” A tall man appeared beside me, his crisp dark suit giving him the expected generic appearance of a federal employee. “Interstellar travel can be tough on the stomach if it’s your first time.”
“I’m fine, Agent Starmer,” I said, then put on a smile on my face. “I’ll get used to it.” I wasn’t entirely sure if I’d ever get used to it, truth be told, but what else could I say? I had come willingly, after all, and it wasn’t like we could make a quick stop for me to stretch my legs. “About that call…do you think I can have it now?”
He hesitated for a moment, then fished a small electronic device from his pocket. It looked like a cellphone, but it was entirely made of some kind of transparent material. Pushing it into my hands, he gave me a quick explanation of how it worked. It didn’t sound complicated. I thanked him, then let out a heavy sigh as I watched him return to his seat.
“Just remember,” he shouted down the aisle, “don’t reveal anything that you can’t.”
“Got it,” I muttered, still looking down at the space phone. Apparently, this went against the regulations. Once you were pulled out of your normal life, you weren’t allowed to communicate with anyone back on Earth. The fact that I had come willingly had earned me some leeway, though. “Alright, let’s do this.”
Biting on the corner of my lip, I typed Alissa’s phone number, then pressed the phone against my ear. There was static for a couple of seconds, but then her voice came through, as clear as if she were standing right next to me.
“What’s up, girl?” she asked. “You’re already running five minutes late. The chéf is going apeshit crazy in here. He has some big names comin’ in tonight and he—”
“I’m not going to make it today,” I said, then cleared my throat as I carefully chose my next words. “In fact, I might not return for a while.” I hated doing this to Alissa, but it had to be done. We had been supporting each other as we tried to make it in the world of haute cuisine, and this felt like I was hanging her out to dry. Still, I was sure she was going to understand.
“What’s going on? Did something happen, Natalie?”
“I…I met someone, Alissa.”
“You met someone?” She sounded incredulous, and I didn’t blame her. I wasn’t exactly the kind of girl who had an active dating life, and she knew it. In fact, the only adjective I could use to describe my dating life would be ‘defunct’.
“It’s not like that,” I hurried to say. “I met a high-roller from Monte Carlo, and he has some connections back there. He liked my cooking, and he asked me to accompany him to Europe. I think I might have found the investor I needed for the restaurant.”
All lies, but I couldn’t exactly tell her the truth. If I told her I was now part of an interstellar matchmaking program, she’d just think I had finally lost my marbles. Besides, I was forbidden from revealing the truth.
“Seriously?” she cried out, and her excitement couldn’t be more evident. “Oh, the chéf is going to lose it. I can’t wait to see the look on his face once he realizes that the best cook in his line-up has just walked out the door.”
“Listen, I’m sorry it was all so sudden. I really didn’t have the time to—”
“Oh, stop it,” she cut me short. “We both know that you want to open your own restaurant. You’ve sacrificed a lot for that dream, Natalie. If you have an opportunity, you’d be dumb not to take it.”
“Thank you, Alissa, it really means a lot to…” I trailed off, the static suddenly becoming so loud that I winced. I pulled the phone away from my ear, and frowned as I saw a ‘connection lost’ message appear on its transparent screen. Sighing, I pinched the bridge of my nose, my mind feeling like an overstuffed suitcase.
It had happened last night—I had been finishing my shift at the restaurant when two federal agents strolled into the kitchen and flashed me their badges. I had absolutely no idea why two suits from Washington were standing there in my kitchen and, for a moment, I actually thought it was all some kind of elaborate prank.
As it turned out, it wasn’t a prank.
They told me that aliens were real and that the human race wasn’t alone in the universe. Yeah, cue the X-files theme. They also told me that Earth had entered into an agreement with the Jorkan, some kind of warrior-like aliens that were protecting Earth from the galaxy’s common enemy, the Rippers.
Apparently, these Ripper guys unleashed a biological weapon against the Jorkan a couple of years ago, and that made their women become infertile. Now, care to guess the only race in the universe that’s genetically compatible with the Jorkan? Yeah, the good ol’ humans. That’s the main pillar supporting the Jorkan/Earth alliance: the Jorkan defend Earth, and Earth offers them women capable of producing offspring in return. Whenever a woman is genetically matched with one of these Jorkan guys, the protocol kicks in.
I had never been lucky in my life, and scratch tickets were the bane of my existence, but it seemed like I had hit the jackpot when it came to this intergalactic genetic lottery. I wasn’t entirely sure if that was a good thing, though. Still, my name had come up on their database, and now I was on my way to some kind of exotic planet where I was supposed to meet my so-called mate.
It all sounded nasty but, as I had been told, the Jorkan weren’t exactly barbarians. See, I was half-expecting to not have a say in any of this but, as it turned out, I wasn’t stripped of my free will. Thirty days—that was all that was being asked of me.
I’d have to spend these thirty with my mate and get to know him better but, at the end of it, I would be offered a choice: either return to my normal life and collect $5 million, or stay in a relationship and split the money with him.
Simple enough, right?
That sweetened the deal enough for me to come here willingly. All I would have to do was spend thirty days with some alien guy and, at the end of the month, I’d be able to return home with a suitcase full of money, enough for me to start my own restaurant. I had told Alissa a bunch of lies, but at least that much was true: I had found a potential source of money to make my dream come true.
A dream that until now had been hazy wishful thinking. With this money I would finally have my shot, and nothing was going to keep me from grabbing this windfall with both hands. Certainly not the mere temptation of falling in love.
“Almost there,” I muttered under my breath, eyeing the holographic screen in front of my seat. A small icon representing the shuttle navigated through a three-dimensional map, showing that we were no more than an hour away from Tarkun IV.
According to what Starmer had told me, Tarkun IV was a small tropical moon lauded as the number one destination in the galaxy. There were tropical beaches, luxurious casinos, and mind-blowing restaurants…and I’d be able to explore all of that. Despite the strangeness of the entire situation, I couldn’t help but feel excited.
Lazily, I reached for the small brochure I had been given. Clearly designed by someone back on Earth, all the images boasted a certain tackiness, but what really interested me was its list of activities. From snorkeling and cooking a gourmet meal, to spear-fishing and mountain climbing, it all seemed to have been based around my personality and Zotar’s.
The moment I thought of him, I immediately felt my heart tighten up inside my chest. That was my mate: Zotar. A high-ranking officer in the Jorkan military and evidently some kind of big deal, so much so that protocol was actually being skirted because of him. Supposedly, an initial overnight stay in Pluto—these guys had a space station there—was mandatory, but it couldn’t happen with Zotar.
Why? No idea.
All I knew was that I was going to meet him in Tarkun IV, not sooner.
I was still wondering about what kind of man Zotar would be when the klaxons suddenly started blaring through the ship.
I straightened my back and looked around, having no idea what was going on. The dim lights mounted overhead turned red, and the entire shuttle became immersed in an aura of pure terror. My excitement drained, quickly replaced by a sense of total dread.
“What’s going on?” I cried out, nervously fastening my seatbelt. Agents Starmer and Krazinski ran down the aisle, struggling not to be jerked around as the shuttle picked up speed, their expressions white as snow.
“The Rippers,” Starmer said. “They’re here.”
“You’re one lucky bastard, Zotar.”
“How do you figure that?” I asked, my feet propped up on the console as I chugged down a beer. It wasn’t protocol to allow alcohol inside a military vessel but, then again, I wasn’t exactly a fan of protocol. I was a fan of getting shit done. “The mission was almost done, and now I’m being pulled out for an entire month? Yeah, I wouldn’t call that lucky. I would call it bullshit.”
“You need to unwind, that’s just a fact,” Commander Ranak said, his face occupying the entire viewscreen. He was donning his grey uniform, which contrasted with his blue skin, but the top buttons on his shirt were undone. He held a glass of whiskey he regularly had shipped in from Earth. Much like me, he didn’t care much for protocol. All he cared about was getting the job done, and that’s why our partnership was such a fruitful one. “Just think of it, Zotar. Thirty days of paid vacation time. What’s there not to like about it?”
“Do I need to remind you I haven’t taken a single day off in four years now?” I threw back at him, allowing some smugness onto my face. I was a high-performer, and I was proud of it. “Vacations aren’t my thing, Commander. I’d rather be shooting down Rippers than sit on my ass all day.”
“Orders are orders,” he said, shrugging as he took a sip of his drink. “I like it just as much as you do. Still, you know how this goes. It’s important for the Jorkan to ensure the continued survival of our species and…”
I stopped listening after the first sentence.
Every Jorkan had heard that story at least a thousand times before. Now that our women had become sterile, all courtesy of the Rippers, the only way for us not to go extinct was to mate with genetically compatible human females. I understood the importance of it, as every Jorkan did, but I never really expected I’d have a match. I mean, the odds for something like that were ridiculously low.
“Just have some fun, Zotar,” Ranak insisted. “It’s only a month, not a life sentence. Unless you decide to pair up with that woman.” I noticed an anxious edge to his voice as he mentioned ‘that woman’, and it didn’t take a genius to know what that was about. I was Ranak’s most valuable asset and he was terrified of losing me.
“You don’t have to worry,” I said, finishing the rest of my beer with a single gulp. “Once those thirty days are up, I’ll be back at it.” From the corner of my eye, I saw a light turn blue on the control panel, indicating that I was now five minutes away from Tarkun IV’s spaceport. “Alright, I’m gonna have to get ready for docking.”
“Just be sure not to enjoy docking with that human too much,” Ranak said, a cockeyed smile on his face. With that, he shut the comms link off, and his image vanished from the viewscreen. As I thought of his joke, I didn’t know whether I should frown or smile.
I hadn’t met a single human female and, although I knew they were beautiful creatures, I wasn’t exactly sure if the one I had been matched with would appreciate the situation. After all, I wasn’t happy about it either, and I knew about the protocol beforehand. Most humans were kept in the dark when it came to the galaxy at large, so this whole thing had probably been a shock to her.
Trying not to think of how awkward our first meeting would be, I directed my mind someplace else. It didn’t help. These thirty days were going to derail my mission—I had been setting up listening satellites all over Rippers’ space, and not a single one of them had been found so far—and that thought never really left my mind.
It was no life for some soft human woman used to the comforts of home. It was dangerous, solitary, and a woman would just be a liability. It wasn’t fair to ask her to wait for me while I traveled the stars either. Even worse if we had children—when would they ever see me?
No, Ranak didn’t have to worry. A mate and family weren’t for me, matched or not.
In the end, I just focused on the docking procedures.
It had been a long time since my last stop in Tarkun IV’s spaceport, and I knew the officials there were pretty strict about docking procedure, all with the important assholes that went through the port on a daily basis.
Sitting comfortably in the pilot’s chair, I switched controls from automatic to manual. On the viewscreen, the spaceport grew until it occupied my entire field of vision. It was a gigantic contraption of rotating rings, hundreds of ships flying in and out from the hangars like wasps guarding their nest.
“Bluefire One requesting clearance to dock,” I said, pressing the button that connected me to the spaceport’s control room. My ship’s name wasn’t Bluefire One—no way I’d ever use such a lame name—but it still checked out. I was a black-ops operative, and that meant all information concerning my job had to be kept under wraps. I even doubted that the spaceport knew I was en route.
Slowly, I led the ship around the concentric rings then dipped down toward the hangar’s open mouth. I was expecting to see the transport that left the Earth Solar System already docked there, but it was nowhere to be seen. That was odd. According to my sensors, the transport had at least thirty minutes on me, so they should have already been here.
I paused my descent into the hangar and hit the comms button.
“This is Bluefire One,” I said. “I’m about to dock on Hangar 17B and I just noticed the Pluto flight isn’t here yet. Any information on that?” For a moment I only heard the crackle of static, then came the hesitant voice of some rookie traffic controller.
“I’m getting Alert messages from the automated defense mechanism.” From the way he was speaking, I could tell he had just pulled up the flight log. “Oh fuck. There’s a Ripper capital ship that’s been spotted! A military patrol has just been dispatched and—”
“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” I growled, and immediately shut the comms off. I pulled away from the hangar and, as soon as I had put enough distance between the spaceport and the ship, I diverted all power to the engines. Soon enough I was cutting through space like a sharp knife through a Rippers’ belly, the sudden increase in g-force keeping me pushed against the seat.
I didn’t like what I had heard, and I knew I had to move fast. No Ripper activity had been recorded in this sector for at least a decade, and it made no sense for the Pluto transport to come across one of their ships randomly. No, the Rippers had to be targeting that transport.
Ten minutes later I was zooming past the military patrol the spaceport had dispatched. Most of their ships had brand new fuselage, but the drives and engines powering them didn’t hold a candle to what my ship could do. I piloted a stealth frigate, which I had customized into a deadly fighting scalpel, and I was pretty sure no ship this side of the galaxy stood a chance against me. The best part was that the frigate came equipped with enough space to hold quarters, a cargo bay, and other aspects of a normal capital class ship so I didn’t have to cramp my style to fight the Rippers.
It didn’t take long before the military patrol disappeared from my sensors. I had put so much distance between us that I could no longer pick up their signals. That meant trouble—if I could no longer pick up their signals, then I was pretty sure they wouldn’t be able to follow the Pluto transport for much longer.
It was just me now.
“What the fuck is going on?” I muttered, struggling to catch up with the transport. The ship was moving fast, and it was clear as day that whoever was piloting it was pushing the damn thing to the limit. A few more minutes of that and the engine would start to sputter and die. Knowing time was of the essence, I kicked some more power into my dual engines and I finally started closing the gap.
The Pluto transport finally came into sight, its power exhaust almost iridescent, a clear cut sign that they were in deep shit. Behind them flew a Rippers’ light fighter, taunting them with steady torpedo-fire. A grin spread across my lips.
“Alright, motherfuckers,” I whispered, my hands on the weapons’ controls. “Let’s have some fun.”
This wasn’t good.
The seatbelt was digging into my chest hard enough to make it feel as if my ribs were going to crack, and I was being slammed into my seat. I didn’t know much about space travel, but I sure as hell could feel that the ship was being pushed past its limitations. The damn thing was rattling like a can someone had kicked down the road, and it rocked so suddenly I half-expected us to blow up anytime now.
I had been dreaming of lounging on a tropical beach, a fruity cocktail in my hands, but I was now trapped inside Titanic’s space remake. If that was the case, though, where the hell was my DiCaprio? I only had two FBI agents—or whatever the hell they were—with me, and they didn’t look particularly capable of saving the day.
Crewmen ran back and forth over and over again, looking as disoriented as I was, but the two agents that had brought me here remained glued to their seats. They had put on their seatbelts and, even though I didn’t have a clear line of sight, I was pretty sure they were holding hands. Sweet, but not entirely comforting. At all.
“What the hell is going on?” I cried out one more time, raising my voice so that I could be heard over the growl of the engine. Agent Krazinski shifted in his seat, and he looked back at me over one shoulder. He was livid.
“There’s a Ripper ship on our tail,” he replied, doing a mighty effort not to let any fear show in his voice. It worked, but only up to a certain point.
“You told me this was going to be safe,” I protested, struggling to get the words out. My lungs felt like two balloons about to pop, the pressure on my chest so much that I could barely breathe. “This doesn’t feel safe to me.”
“This wasn’t supposed to happen,” he continued, and his voice trembled a little. “I don’t remember the last time the Rippers showed up in this sector. This doesn’t make any sense.” He was about to continue speaking when another explosion rocked the ship, slamming him back against his seat. “Jesus Christ! We’re going to die here.”
“I said it’s going to be fine,” he lied. Bastard. “I’m sure Tarkun has already dispatched a military patrol. They’ll be here in about…” he hesitated as he looked down at his datapad, a see-through device that looked like a regular tablet, then pursed his lips so tightly they turned white. “They’ll be here soon, I’m sure.”
It was another lie, as whatever he had seen on his datapad had drained what little color still remained in his face. The two agents were scared shitless and, by the looks of it, so was the entire crew. I didn’t know much about the Rippers, but it was pretty evident that everyone was afraid of them.
Suddenly, the cockpit door slid open, and two men marched down the aisle. They wore bland grey uniforms; right above their hearts was some kind of ID tag and, below it, a small badge with golden wings. They didn’t look at either me or the agents as they walked past us.
“Where the hell are you going?” Krazinski cried out, but the pilots didn’t even slow down. They simply kept on going until they disappeared. “Holy shit, this isn’t good.”
“What’s happening?” I asked, even though I had an idea of what the situation was: the pilots were jumping ship. So much for the bravery of the human race. No wonder we depended on these Jorkan guys to keep Earth safe.
“What’s happening is that it’s time for us to bail,” Krazinski replied, jumping out of his seat so fast you’d think he had coiled springs under the sole of his shoes. He helped Starmer out from his seat and, right when he was doing it, the ship jerked once more. The two men were flung down the aisle, and they hit one of the concave walls as hard as a wrecking ball.
Once they were back on their feet, Starmer leaned against Krazinski to remain standing up. They dragged themselves beside me, then Starmer unclipped my seatbelt.
“What are you doing?” I cried out, not excited about the prospect of being flung around like a pinball. Immediately, I started putting my seat belt back on. “I’d rather stay in my seat, thank you very much. Where are you going?”
“In case you didn’t notice, the ship’s pilots just bailed on us. Unless you want the Rippers to turn you into minced meat, I’d suggest you come with us. This ship is rigged with a fairly decent system of escape pods and—”
Before he could finish his sentence, the ship jerked again, and the pair tumbled down the aisle. I gripped the armrests so tightly that my knuckles turned white and, miraculously, I stopped the same thing from happening to me. Still, Starmer was right—if the pilots were no longer behind the ship’s controls, it’d be suicide for me to remain on this seat. Whether I liked it or not, it was time for me to leave.
Gritting my teeth, I pushed myself off the seat once the ship started rocking. Carefully, I made my way toward the two agents, and the three of us headed to the back of the ship. We entered what seemed like a cargo hold, except there was no cargo—the room was completely empty, the walls lined with dozens of circular holes roughly the size of a manhole cover.
“Get in, Natalie,” Starmer said, pushing me toward one of those holes.
“What? I’m not getting in there.”
“Yes, you are,” he insisted, still pointing at the hole. “The Rippers are going to blow this ship up. If we want to survive, we’ll have to eject.”
“Stupid questions will only get stupid answers,” he replied without a moment’s hesitation, and that was all that I needed to know: there was nothing safe about ejecting from a spaceship while under attack.
Before I had the time for a follow-up question, Starmer placed one hand on my lower back and shoved me into the hole. I tumbled headfirst, my knees hitting the plastic surface with a dull thud, and I found myself sliding down a never-ending tunnel. I’m not proud to admit it, but I screamed as hard as I could.
I crash-landed onto a padded seat, and self-moving straps immediately wrapped themselves around my shoulders and waist. A lid slid over the hole I had come through, closing it with a hissing sound as the cramped little capsule pressurized. There was a monitor in front of me, as well as a terminal crammed with all manners of switches and buttons, but I had no idea what I should do.
I was a freaking cook, for God’s sake, not an astronaut.
It didn’t help that the only light in here was red, giving a horror movie vibe to the place. Scared out of my mind, I reacted on pure instinct and started hitting all the buttons at random. Something started to beep on the terminal, but the capsule didn’t move a single inch. I was going nowhere fast. Only then did I notice the red lever with the words LAUNCH engraved on it in both Jorkan and one of the human languages. I don’t know which one, due to the fact that they gave me a memory dump of all human languages and dialects in preparation for meeting my match.
Without thinking twice about it, I pulled on it.
Next thing I knew, the capsule was being hurled out into the vastness of space.